Design firms venturing beyond borders
Press Release: June 22, 2011
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (June 22, 2011) – The other side of the world really isn’t that far away anymore. As work dried up in the U.S. during the recession, many firms attempted to balance their backlogs with opportunities abroad. Approximately 7 percent of architecture firms in the U.S. reported claiming a piece of the international pie, according to the American Institute of Architects’ latest member survey, released in 2009.
Going global has always been part of the overall strategic diversification plan for DeStefano Partners in Chicago, Ill., CEO Scott Sarver told the June 20 issue of The Zweig Letter, ZweigWhite’s weekly management publication. The architecture, urban planning, and interior design firm has participated in projects in China, Vietnam, and South Korea for almost 15 years.
“We wanted to have more than one leg to stand on… and want clients who will build in bad times and good times. Overseas work sort of hedges our bets; generally, if things are bad here, they’re good overseas, and vice versa,” Sarver said. “To be frank, our overseas work has been a real benefit for us through the recession.”
But working overseas isn’t as easy as packing a suitcase and getting on a plane. When entering any new market, you can’t just show up and start working, Sarver says. It takes a long time to develop relationships and build reputations. “Overseas, it’s a lot about relationships, and there’s a lot of time spent getting to know each other. It does take time, and an investment, and a willingness to understand the local culture,” he says. “Dropping a Chicago building into the middle of Jinan, China, just won’t work.”
KA, Inc. Architecture in Cleveland, Ohio, has followed clients with international projects for years, said Darrell Pattison, director of design at the 65-person architecture firm. He feels partnering with a local entity is not only the best way to enter a global market, but sometimes it’s the only way to develop the relationships necessary to succeed. “For us to venture out into the wild, especially if there is a language barrier, is an expensive proposition, even in the sheer cost of getting to the right people and learning the ropes. You need someone with an inroad, and partnering up will provide for that,” Pattison said.
However, international work demands care, said Ralph Hawkins, CEO of HKS in Houston, Texas. Cultural and legal differences can be a huge obstacle, and it’s important not to underestimate the consequences. He advises, “Stay away from organizations that appear in any form to have illegal influence… In fact, run away. They are out there. Transparency does not exist in most countries about how and why you are selected.”
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